Weaving Words: My Writing Journey

When I was four years old, I stepped into a kindergarten classroom for the first time. A truly wondrous chapter of my life, kindergarten opened the doors of my mind to active, classroom-based learning. And while I fully understood why my classmates espoused “RECESS!” as their favorite subject, I felt an incomparable, inexplicable sensation of eager anticipation whenever we had Language Arts — something about flipping through my very own half-inch-thick handwriting workbook and doing all the exercises made me a very happy kindergartener.

Maybe it was my love of books, having taught myself to read fairytales at age three. Maybe I was just adamant about training my hand until my twiglike four-year-old scrawl turned into pretty handwriting like that of my teacher’s. One thing was clear: I loved writing.

The Three Little Pigs: the book that taught me how to read (source: Amazon)

So it’s no surprise that in 3rd grade, I embarked on an ambitious journey: to write my own novel. Armed with my dad’s chunky, old 2003 Samsung desktop computer and the fiery determination of a headstrong eight-year-old, I click-clacked my way to an 81-page chapter book about the adventures of Tiffany and Charlotte, two identical twins with a passion for fashion. While I can’t remember any of the details beyond that, I do remember welling up with pride when my 3rd grade teacher asked my mother if she could read my book to the class during our daily afternoon reading time.

Enter 4th grade, when I began my formal training in the art of writing paragraphs. Every so often, my teacher would assign the class to craft a structured, five-sentence paragraph on a topic of her choosing — ranging from our favorite color to Saudi Arabia. It was during this time that I started to experiment with sentence structure, introductory hooks, and flow, electing to use complex sentences that began with dependent clauses. Anything to prevent each sentence from starting with “I” or “The”!

4th grade wasn’t just special for the paragraph writing, though. Up until then, I was an avid reader of fiction and fiction alone, picking up loads of chapter books and comic compilations during my weekly trip to the library. After all, who could resist the side-splitting humor and enthralling ancient-Greece-meets-modern-day universe of the Percy Jackson series? Or the cheeky antics and crazy inventions within the pages of Calvin and Hobbes?

The answer: well, my mother. We struck a deal — if I agreed to check out at least two non-fiction books each week, I’d be able to get not only fiction books from the library, but also DVDs of the Pokémon anime (for context: my dream job was “Pokémon trainer” for 2 whole years of my childhood and I still get as hyper as a Skitty when I fangirl over the DS games and TV show). So I wandered glumly among the non-fiction bookshelves, and picked out two of the most innocuous-looking hardcovers to get things over with.

As soon as I got home, my mom dropped another bomb — before I could touch the newest Dork Diaries volume, I had to bore myself with one of my newfound biology books. Grumbling helplessly, I sunk into a chair and opened the first page of Microquests: Ultra-Organized Cell Systems. Expecting to doze off before I even finished the opening paragraph, I was surprised to find myself captivated by a quirky hook and fun facts, complemented by colorful graphics. To this day, I’ll never forget this random factoid in Chapter 1, one which flipped the non-fiction-hating switch in my nine-year-old brain and sparked my wonder about the human body:

“A single cell is tiny. Hundreds of cells could fit inside the period at the end of this sentence. Your body contains trillions of cells.”

To be fully honest, up until I’d searched up the title on Amazon, my most vivid memories of this book were 1) the above quote, 2) memorizing that cells → tissues → organs → organ systems that day, and 3) Rebecca. Sincerest thanks to Rebecca L. Johnson, who I’m indebted to for turning me into the human physiology nerd I am today.

Microquests: the book series that changed my life (source: Google Books)

Needless to say, Microquests taught me that non-fiction didn’t have to be dry and pedantic. Moreover, it ignited my love for the human body and its complex, dynamic physiology. Perhaps most importantly, this experience laid the groundwork for me to become more open-minded about not only science, but also life in general. (Maybe Mother does know best, sometimes.)

By the time I’d finished 5th grade, I had achieved two more milestones in my ten years of life:

  • Memorizing all of the major bones and muscles (scapula! phalanges! pectoralis major! gluteus maximus!) in the human body.
  • Proclaiming, to my parents’ surprise and delight, that I wanted to become a doctor in the future. Quite the step up from “Pokémon trainer”, I’m sure.
  • Learning how to write my very first, very rudimentary scientific lab report. My first foray into academic writing!

Let’s jump to 7th grade, when I took the next leap in my journey — both physically, as I transferred to an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School across the city, and skill-wise in my writing development. By now, writing basic paragraph responses and doing humanities assignments were a breeze for me. However, my English teacher made it clear that 7th grade was a departure from purely descriptive writing. After spending half a year on “Paragraph Practice” assignments with longer, argumentative paragraphs, we segued into the art of persuasive essays. This was a new challenge: I had to refine my naturally verbose voice into concise, targeted arguments. Adapting to this change was far from easy — on my midterm essay analyzing John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, my teacher commented that it was “well-structured with excellent analysis, but almost too embellished with stylistic elements to be an effectively persuasive essay”. Oops!

For once, writing was more challenging than enjoyable; I found myself spending more time on checking and editing each sentence to fit my argument precisely than actually writing. As someone who has never liked making essay outlines because I prefer to write as freely as possible, I felt constricted.

Surprisingly, it was science that brought me out of this rut. One of the hallmark events of 7th grade was the Science Fair, a 3-month project that encompassed brainstorming, hypothesizing, experimentation, and analysis, culminating with a formal lab report and poster symposium. By immersing myself in the scientific method, I focused on writing analytically in an objective manner, with clarity and intention — free of stylistic edits and verbosity, as scientists do. When I finished my lab report, I realized that I had produced what was essentially a series of short, argumentative essays: from justifying my hypothesis to scrutinizing my experimental validity and limitations in the evaluation, my report essentially aimed to persuade my teacher that I had run a proper experiment and produced valid, reliable findings. If I imagined that I was trying to explore a hypothesis (main argument) with research (supporting evidence) in my English essays, maybe academic writing wouldn’t be so challenging at all.

Reinvigorated with fighting spirit, I finished the year strong and joyously delved into creative writing in 8th grade. Our first major project was Night of the Notables, for which each student chose a famous individual to research and portray through creative narration. While most of my peers opted to write monologues, I sought to practice channeling the voice of another: my Notable, Soong May-Ling. How? Through diaries, of course! I remember poring through my research of May-Ling’s illustrious life, which narrowly bridged three centuries over the course of 105 years (1898–2003), and formulating a vision for each entry. Experimenting with syntax, diction, and content, I eventually produced a selection of diary entries capturing May-Ling’s life from ages 5 to 103 years old. Knowing that Night of the Notables was a notoriously difficult project, and that creative writing could be received poorly by the wrong beholder, I was all the more ecstatic to receive top marks on my submission.

Soong May-ling or Madame Chiang Kai-shek (source: AuctionZip)

Perhaps it was 8th grade that nurtured my drive to continue writing creatively. Regardless, 9th grade was my breakthrough in both academic and artistic composition, after taking the year prior to refine my argumentative and creative skills. I quickly became known among my peers as one of the most outspoken people in English class — owing to both the fact that I adored my 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Roy, and because I was slowly developing an eye for analysis, for reading between the lines of each text. Under Ms. Roy’s tutelage, I grew my propensity to think outside of the box and present deep analyses of the works we discussed in class, from short stories like Hemingway’s “Old Man at the Bridge” to novellas like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

At the same time, Ms. Roy pushed us to embrace our creativity and dabble in writing poetry, monologues, and short stories. I loved every minute of it, infusing my work with inspiration from my lived experience, my vicarious insights through the adventures of my favorite fiction book characters, as well as my wild, unbounded imagination. Looking back at my final assessment submission for our Short Stories unit still puts an amused grin on my face: “Snapshots of Sunlight”, the short story I wrote about a girl with cutaneous porphyria, is probably one of my most dramatic pieces — delving into social class hierarchies and coming-of-age while juxtaposing the yin of woman and yang of man through an ill-fated romance.

As the terminal year of my K-12 school’s Middle School division, 9th grade also served as a deep dive into Canadian culture, politics, and history. One of the defining highlights of the year was the annual Grade 9 Eastern Canada Trip, a one-week experiential learning excursion to the cities of Montreal, Quebec City, and Ottawa. In accordance with this trip, the curriculum featured an interdisciplinary partnership between the Social Studies, Visual Art, and English departments. Facing some of the historically coldest temperatures that February (below -30°C with wind chill!), I embarked on an adventure of not only sightseeing, but also writing across multiple disciplines: from journaling to art analysis to humanities reflections. (The link will take you to the post I wrote for my middle school portfolio, my first official blog that captures my learning from 7th to 10th grade.)

The trip was only one week long, but my work was far from finished. After we returned, Ms. Roy presented us with our hefty task: to craft a creative writing piece, in any form or genre, that answered the question “What does it mean to be Canadian?” After intense rumination, I decided to explore this question through a literary form that I had always loved to read, but had never formally written in: poetry. My poem, aptly titled “What Does it Mean to be Canadian?”, was well-received by my classmates and Ms. Roy, and even by my Mandarin teacher when I converted it into a short Mandarin essay.

Having aced our Eastern Canada unit, I finished the year strong by taking the English 10 Provincial Exam, as our school curriculum was designed to prepare 9th grade students for the 10th grade exam. Most of the exam is a blur to me (although 9th grade Rachael wrote a decent reflection about the experience), but the one part I can remember is the creative writing section, where we were asked to compose a short piece about change and its effects on life. With less than an hour left on the clock, after wrestling with a few ideas, I wrote a narrative about one’s change in worldview from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, expressed through the narrator’s perception of the shapes of clouds.

I’ll never forget walking into school late one day and—as I was obtaining my late slip—came face to face with the middle school principal. Fearing the worst, I nervously agreed to follow him to his office, feeling a sense of dread as I entered and sat down. To my surprise, he broke out in a huge grin, announcing: “We received everyone’s provincial exam results this past week. Congratulations, Rachael! You scored 100% on the English 10 exam!”

While grades aren’t necessarily the best form of validation, I had never thought of myself as a “writer”, per se. I knew I could write and that I was a high-performing student in English, but hadn’t considered how writing related to my personal identity.

Provincial exam grades aside, I achieved my next milestone over the summer. Late one night in July, as I scrolled through my phone in boredom, I discovered the Poetry Institute of Canada & Young Writer’s website. Upon further exploration, I found that they were accepting submissions for their Open Ages Poetry contest, their annual poetry competition open to all ages and all topics. On a whim, I submitted the poem I had labored over in school—“What Does it Mean to be Canadian?”—and forgot about the contest.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered, when my mother handed me a letter from the Poetry Institute. Ripping open the envelope, I gaped at the message before me—my poem had been selected to be published in the Poetry Institute’s annual anthology for 2015, titled The Tracery of Trees. Perhaps it was this moment when I fully began to think of myself as a writer, someone capable of crafting artwork with words.

Onto the next chapter: my last two years of high school, a.k.a. the IB Diploma Programme.

“Alright, children of the corn! Let’s begin.”

— Ms. Lee

When I think back to high school English, the first person who pops up in my mind is Ms. Lee, who taught me Year 1 (junior year) of IB Higher Level English. A serene woman with a knack for sarcasm and a quiet love for cheesy puns, Ms. Lee took me under her wing and helped me to not only elevate the quality of my work to new heights, but also to explore the versatility of literary analysis. As I became more well-versed in dissecting the multiplex layers of plays and poetry on paper, I also grew more confident in expressing my observations through oral communication. Without this training, I wouldn’t be able to compose and deliver public speaking presentations with ease today.

I’ve received my fair share of good grades for my writing, but all of those accomplishments pale in comparison to the brief — yet heart-stopping — praise that Ms. Lee gave me one afternoon, post-English class:

“Rachael, you have a lovely turn of phrase. No matter what you write, it’s there and it’s a pleasure to read. Never lose it.”

It goes without saying that my passion for writing helped me push through the college admissions process, essay after essay, earning me acceptances from UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, and more (can you tell I intended to stay on the West Coast?). And I’d hope that it was my turn of phrase that allowed me to communicate my individual story to the admissions committees, helping them form a vision of who I was as they read my essays.

By now, you’ve observed my deep interest in literature and biology. (And maybe remember from above that I decided to become a doctor in 5th grade.) Carefully weighing my passion for English, human physiology, and economics—the latter a product of a wonderful experience in IB Economics—I committed to UC Berkeley and declared the double majors of Nutritional Science and Public Health.

As a pre-med, I was required to take two semesters of English classes. In my first semester at Cal, I took a Reading & Composition class offered by the Theater department, called Mental Illness and Performance in the Contemporary United States. In this course, I explored the science of psychiatry and mental disorders through the lens of literature, immersing myself in the minds of fictional characters and probing into the question of how people “perform” their mental state and how psychosis is perceived in performance. I was overjoyed to discover that one of the selected works our class discussed was A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, which remains my favorite play of all time and was one of two literary pieces I analyzed in my final paper.

Poster for A Streetcar Named Desire’s Hollywood adaptation (source: IT Film)

Last semester, things came full circle when I took a class on children’s literature, returning back to the moments of my childhood that sparked my interest in reading and writing. While past semesters of this class were more of an overall survey of children’s literature as a genre, as well as the cultural and historical context behind the “child” as a socially constructed figure, the Spring 2020 class was led by professor Poulomi Saha, who centered the syllabus around a concrete theme: The Bad Seed — Monstrosity, Horror, and the Inhuman in Children’s Literature. Up until then, I had never considered the concept of childhood and the unique way adults interact with children—which seem like a given in our society—to be something that arose in the Enlightenment, when children began to be perceived as a separate social class from adults. Through supplemental texts from philosophers like Rousseau and Locke, I entertained different schools of thought and explored thought-provoking themes in children’s literature through journal entries (give a few of them a read!). Even now, it perplexes me how even the simplest of texts can clearly reflect cultural norms and societal beliefs, as well as how such norms and beliefs have shifted they way they have throughout history.

By now, you’re probably ready for me to wrap up… So let’s focus the lens on me in the present. As I type up the end to this stream of consciousness, I’m once again realizing how quintessential writing is to my life. As an introvert at heart (fun fact: I’m 51% introverted and 49% extroverted according to 16Personalities), I’ve always cherished the eloquence of my written voice over my spoken one, even if I enjoy public speaking. You might be wondering how I’ve managed to recall so much of my past experience, often with meticulous detail; I can thank the fruitful combination of my oddly sharp memory (which remembers some of the most irrelevant things) and the writing process itself. With each sentence I craft, the words etch themselves onto my brain, leaving a lasting impression.

At this very second, as I’m starting my junior year of college, I’ve just left the pre-med track as of summer and am pursuing different career possibilities: management consulting, product management, UX writing, or venture capital. Why did I make the jump? Partially because I wanted to enter a field that gave me more freedom and creativity, partially because I wanted to engage in more innovation and creative problem-solving, and maybe even because I had a gut feeling. And while it’s not a primary reason why I pivoted in my journey, I have to say that the prospect of crafting written work in my future profession—whether it be reports and briefs, marketing hooks, or digital content—is incredibly enticing for a writer like me.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rachael Deng

Rachael Deng

Is loving writing a personality trait?… I'm a designer and startup founder, makeup/skincare junkie, foodie, and published poet! Almost always smiling :)